The Mideast is stumbling into one of its most dangerous crisis in decades. I’m just back from the region – and as an old Mideast hand, I am very worried. This region is always tense, but right now a series of separate conflicts are rapidly beginning to intersect. We see the Mideast, North Africa and the Sahara buffeted by revolutions and counter-revolutions. Old colonial powers France and Britain, and the US, are trying to reassert their domination in the region. The militants are back.
In a brazen act of war, Israel launched air strikes on Syria recently in a clear attempt to worsen the crisis in that war-torn nation and challenge Syria’s ally, Iran. Israel’s forces are on high alert and may invade Syria, whose strategic Golan Heights were seized and annexed by Israel. Will more Syrian land follow? Goaded by Israel, Iran thundered, “any attack on Syria is an attack on Iran.” An Iranian general warned Tel Aviv might come under attack. Hot air, as they say in Farsi. Separated from ally Syria by Iraq, Iran’s not very mobile ground forces would be unable to intervene in Syria in any substantial way. Israel’s air force would devastate any Iranian columns advancing in open terrain.
Iran’s feeble air force is barely operational after decades of crushing embargos by the United States and its allies. Tehran’s dilapidated warplanes are far more menacing to their pilots than their enemies. Iran’s passenger airliners are flying coffins thanks to the US embargo of new aircraft and spare parts. The only way Iran could strike at Israel is by firing medium-ranged Shahab-III missiles and a small number of Sajjil-2 solid propellant missiles. Both are inaccurate. Their 750-1,000 kg conventional warheads would only do limited damage – unless they made a lucky hit on Israel’s heavily defended Dimona nuclear reactor.
Tehran’s dilapidated warplanes are far more menacing to their pilots than their enemies. Iran’s passenger airliners are flying coffins thanks to the US embargo of new aircraft and spare parts. The only way Iran could strike at Israel is by firing medium-ranged Shahab-III missiles and a small number of Sajjil-2 solid propellant missiles. Both are inaccurate. Their 750-1,000 kg conventional warheads would only do limited damage – unless they made a lucky hit on Israel’s heavily defended Dimona nuclear reactor.
Israel estimates that a major Iranian non-nuclear strike would only cause a few hundred casualties. Israel is fast deploying a multi-layer anti-missile system: the Arrow-III, which has shown high hit probability in tests against missile warheads. The low level Iron Dome system, which had an 80 per cent hit probability against rockets fired from Gaza, and the new, highly accurate David’s Sling high altitude system, and more systems in the pipeline, give Israel’s the world’s most advanced and accurate anti-missile system that could be relied on to knock down a majority of incoming missiles from far-away Iran.
More important, Israel would quickly counter-attack once its powerful radars (and a US-manned X-band radar based in Israel that can scan Iran) spot missile being launched by Tehran. Israel has its own arsenal of accurate medium-ranged missiles, armed drones, its powerful air force, and satellites watching Iran. How would Israel know that an incoming Iranian missile was conventionally armed and not carrying a nuclear warhead? Rather than gamble, Israel would probably hit Iran with its own nuclear arsenal, including nuclear-tipped cruise missiles fired by Israeli submarines lurking in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
Iran is not believed to have nuclear warheads – but how can Israel really be sure since it successfully concealed its own nuclear programme from the United States. Meanwhile, Egypt threatens to turn into another Syria. The chief of staff of Egypt’s armed forces just warned his strife-torn nation is on the “brink of collapse.” Conservative Arab nations, the US and Britain are fuelling a counter-revolution by Mubarakist forces and Christians. Egypt’s economy has all but collapsed, igniting violent social unrest. A coup may be imminent.
Syria is teetering on the brink of national collapse. The Assad government has no popularity beyond its Alawi base, but half of Syrians don’t want to live in an Islamic state and fear what will happen to them if insurgent forces seize power. Syria’s economy has almost ceased to function. This bloody civil war threatens to turn Syria into a larger version of the ghastly 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war that I covered. Russia is growling in the background. Syria, recall, is as close to Russia’s southern border as northern Mexico is to Texas. Washington is underestimating Russia’ growing anger. Israel is still determined to push the US into war against Iran. The Turks can’t decide whether to be neutral or reborn Ottomans. Caution: danger ahead.
(Eric Margolis is a veteran US journalist.)